tv White House Press Secretaries CSPAN January 1, 2015 2:00pm-3:37pm EST
c-span3. >> coming up next former white house press secretaries from the ford reagan george h.w. bush, clinton and obama administrations. they talk about how the position has changed overtime and some of the difficulties they faced while trying to work for the white housen an be the press. the panelists include ron nesn, marlin fitzwater mike mccurry and robert gibbs. it was hosted by the national archives. >> in the words of young jeezy, let's go to work. you know i thought we would start this the way we usually end these things. by saying thank you. this is the week when we recognize the service of people who have served our country in uniform. our country in uniform. and all of you served in public service so i'm going to start by saying thank you. is that okaying? >> you're welcome.
[ applause ] >> and i'm thinking that there are others here who served if you served in any of the administrations represented here, will you be known to us? will you just briefly give us a little wave? [ applause ] and we say thank you. thank you. we'll talk about the whole relationship between the media and press secretaries. if there are any press secretaries here, whether you served on capitol hill or in the white house, elsewhere, can we make yourself -- and if you especially returned my phone calls, thank you. and if you didn't well, thank you anyway. okay. any press secretaries here? thank you for coming. thank you, thank you. [ applause ] it's a little like the defendant thanking the prosecution but whatever. so anyway, now that we've gotten that out of the way, let's talk about what we really want to talk about which is all the things we wanted to know when we were sitting in those chairs that we didn't get to talk about
then so this is our chanceing to spill it. so let's do that. so the first thing i wanted to know is did you actually want these jobs or were you -- did you get drafted or did you volunteer? ron nevin, i ronness sen, il start with you because you were a correspondent. you covered the vietnam war. you were grievously wounded and almost died. you come back here and you reported on the administration. you reported on gerald ford's inauguration and then you were reporting on the then press secretary's appointment and all of a sudden you're the guy. how did he talk you into that? >> well as you say, i had been a reporter for a long time. i had also covered the white house for about two and a half years when lyndon johnson was president. and then i covered the first month of the ford white house. and i think what persuaded me to
do, to take the job when he offered it was i wanted to see what it looked like on the inside. in fact, i wrote a book afterward called "it sure looks different on the inside," because i had the sense as a reporter that i probably knew 10% of what was going on in the white house. and one of the reasons i took this job was i wanted to see what the other 90% was. that was one reason. i think the other reason clearly was that i really liked gerald ford. i covered him as i say as an nbc correspondent. and so that was the other reason for taking the job because i really did -- i really did like him. the third reason i'm ashamed to say is that i had a pretty large ego in those days. and i thought, hmm. >> imagine that. >> i'm moving up to a white house job. >> is that right?
>> very satisfying for a guy with a big ego. >> marlin fitzwater, you actually first went to the white house as a deputy, right? >> right. i was in the civil service. and i was at the treasury department when jim baker caused and said we need a deputy for domestic policy. somebody to take the heat for the president on the recession, which we were about ready to hit 10% unemployment. would you be interested? i said sure. and so he said come over. and i went over spent an hour with him and he said you want the job? i said sure. and he said let's go see the president. we walked down to the oval office and president reagan was sitting there he said well marlin, jim here says you're willing to help out. i said yes, sir. that was it. >> how come? >> first time i ever met him and first minute i'd ever spent time with him. i immediately walked out the
door and said mr. president, i'll do my best. and i got outside the oval office into the secretary's area, and i went yes! and she said what is that all about? i said history must always record that even if i get fired tomorrow, i for one day, i was a president secretary for the president. [ applause ] ing >> why did you say yes? you could have said no. i don't want that job. why? dealing with people like me every day, really? >> you know i was a professional public affairs person. i'd been in government 17 years at the time i went to the white house. i worked in a lot of different agencies and so the white house was the pinnacle of our profession, a professional deal. the other thing was i didn't know what the white house was all about. i mean i remember walking in and seeing that press corps and helen thomas said what are you doing here, kid? and it was all downhill from there.
[ laughter ] >> mike, what about you? you had come to the white house from the state department and you'd been at the dnc. it wasn't a direct -- >> my story is a little different. i had been around in washington as a press secretary for 20 years. and i had worked for i'm sure everyone remembers the administration of president john glenn, president bruce babbitt. president mike dukakis. and i had worked for not to be president bob kerrey. so it was actually probably because i have an unfailing ability to pick the losing candidate. i had worked against bill clinton in the primaries so my thought was, i was not likely to get a job and george stephanopoulos took pity on me and said this guy's been around a long time, he worked at the democratic national committee for a long time. so he can probably do the job. luckily, warren christopher,
secretary of state, hired me to be a spokesman. but after two years working at the say the department and doing the job there and maybe something we'll talk about later being on television because at that point the state department briefing was televised, the white house briefing was not fully televised. i caught the notice of some folks at the white house and they invited me to come over. i don't know that i ever kind of angled for it, but it made sense because had i, obviously, worked in presidential politics for a pretty long time. and it made some sense that that would be the trajectory that i wound up in. >> did you have a yes! ? did you feel do that? >> no, because it was -- if you remember, we're in the aftermath of an election now that is not to be called shellacking i guess, but in 1994 at the end of that midterm campaign things were pretty grim at the white house. and i moved to the white house in 1995 as a result of what was
then a pretty large shake-up in the white house staff. leon panetta came in as chief of staff. so i was part of a transition that happened in the aftermath of what was a pretty bruising political midterm. and not clear that thing were going to get soared out anytime soon. so it was not a happy moment that you would celebrate. >> why did you do it? >> because it was an honor to be asked to work in that place. i think all of us would say it's the coolest place on the face of the earth to work. even though i had had a great time, i had never been outside the country very much and i had just worked for the secretary of state and been all over the world, that was pretty exciting. but the opportunity to work in the white house you know to drive up that little west executive drive and say i've got my own parking place right here right outside the west wing, it's an honor even when the subject matter you have to deal with becomes fairly zesty. >> let's talk about that in a
minute. but before we do robert gibbs, what about you? if you're on a campaign, isn't kind of the working assumption if your guy wins you're going to get the job or gal eventually? >> i think in most instances by the time you get to the end of the campaign you have a fairly decent chance or decent sense of if this person wins, who is likely to be the press secretary. i think mike's absolutely right. i think the you realize pretty quickly how great an honor and great a responsibility it is when you doll drive into that white house, a lot of days when it's dark. and you realize sitting in that oval office throughout the week what you're witnessing, what you're trying to describe and what you're part of. know, i think it's truly an amazing honor. i do remember pretty early into my first briefing and i was listening to a question and it was about ten minutes in and i remember this voice in my head
saying i can't believe you're here doing this. and there's another voice saying pay attention to the questions. [ laughter ] i thautd thought it would be amazingly embarrassing to somehow miss an entire question in your first briefing. so -- but i think that's, you know, you understand that however long you're there, you're just -- you're going to get to witness and see things in a seat that very, very few people have. and it's remarkable and it's amazing. >> so let's keep it going because for those of you who. >> it's au good times. just keep going. >> we'll get to some of those. we'll start it out soft. so you know, the post has a feature which called date lab which thankfully as a married person i don't know about. when they're trying to fix people up they have this thing caused brag a little. so brag a little. like what was your best day? what was your best day? robert, you want to start?
>> i think the our best day was probably signing health care. >> i'm starting with you because i don't know that you're going to get too many more questions like this. >> not for a few more years that's for sure. no, i think -- i just think the sense of accomplishment and the euphoria of you know walking into the east room and having the president sign that and now, you know, you have people come up to you and say you know, i have had a condition for 15 years. i could never get health care, thank you for being part of something like that i think was -- that was probably it. plus also that day is you know, that's when joe biden said into an open microphone just how big an accomplishment that was. >> exactly. he did. [ laughter ] >> and i remember i went back to
my office after the signing and you know, when you're in the east room the microphone is connected to the which goes into the camera. it's not audible. i couldn't hear it and i'm there and somebody. comes running in and said you should just know the microphone sort of picked this thing up. and so we're talking about it and one of my other deputies rushes in and says i don't think he said that. i said yeah, i'm pretty sure he said that. and i'm sure we'll get some of the technology of this, but i remember i was on twitter and i thought, you know, let me try to sum this up. so i remember i sat down and i'm like and so i wrote, yes, mr. vice president it really is. and i hit send. i think my phone is -- >> demerit. interview demerit. >> so so two minutes later my assistant comes in and says the vice president's chief of staff
is on the phone. damn, i should have checked with them before i tweeted. and it was one of those things, and again, sometimes in even in politics honesty is the best policy. and ron called in and i picked up up the phone saying hey ron, trying to pretend like nothing was going wrong. he just said thank you. he said we were over here trying to figure out what the statement would say and we read your tweet and it was like yeah just sort of own it. so that was a good day. >> all right. can you turn your phone off, though? >> good point. >> thank you. >> i just have the to find my phone. >> who is next? mike, what was your best day? >> much more mundane than that although i loved that story and thinking of that you know, you were the only one of the four of us that had to worry about tweeting because -- >> a whole other conversation. >> it's a whole different job. i think the job that you ended up having to do just because of the changes in technology and media went by so quickly.
but mine was okay. very mundane but it captured as i think back on it what i think the best of what the press secretary can do was. and it was a day that we announced in the clinton administration that we were promulgating a very complicated federal regulation to regulate tobacco for the very first time. it was premised on the theory that a cigarette is a delivery, medical delivery device designed to deliver a dose of nicotine to the body which was stretching things as the supreme court later concluded. but it was the regulation went on 30 pages in the federal register. and i stayed up a good part of the night to read it even though i said okay the briefing the next day we're going to bring in donna shalala the secretary of health and human services david kesler, head of the fda, and they'll do the briefing but i want to make sure it's a big deal and make sure i know what's
going on. well donna and david kesler got up there. it was so complicated. they instantly got way down into the weeds. and you guys all know terry hunt from the associated press. he's standing there looking up. going -- and it was clear to me watching the reporters that we were losing the story because they were having a hard time explaining it. and i so i got up and elbowed donna shalala out of the podium which is a very difficult thing to do if you know her. and i kind of took over the briefing. and got the head of the food and drug celebration administration the secretary of health and human services there and looking at them saying am i explaining this correctly. but i had to simultaneously translate that complicated language and vocabulary of government to something that would actually get through and help the reporters write the story. a couple of them came up and
said boy you saved your buns there because we were not getting any clue what you were talking about. that's the best of what the press secretary can do. i mean, we get accused of being spin doctors. we probably sometimes get a little angry at the press corps. but at the heart of it is trying to take the work that the white house does the president does, and the federal government does and help the american people understand it. so i mean, you know, it was not the most dramatic day. i had plenty of those. but it was the day on which i felt like i really did my job. >> ronnie, want to go next. >> just to follow up on that one of my best days in the white house was when is i smoked when i first went to the white house. and a bunch from the press office went to these decided to join this class called smoke enders. and we went. i think it's eight weeks or so. and i stopped smoking. so but seriously my best day in the white house clearly was when
i had to stand up and announce the end of the vietnam war. and i had as i say as an nbc correspondent had covered the war. i did five tours there as a correspondent. got wounded almost died. and then i'm the one who had to go over into the old executive office building and read this statement from the president saying for us the war is over. and i've got an old fashioned ca set tape of that at home. my voice is about five octaves higher than normal, very quavery because of what vietnam had meant in my life and here i'm the one who has to stand up and announce the end of the war. >> did you want to cry? >> yes. >> did you cry? >> not in public but in privatedy. >> how about you marlin? what was your best day? i'm thinking the 25th anniversary of the fall of the berlin wall this week and i remember -- i shouldn't admit
that i remember that. what about you? >> well, there's so many days and events that you run through your mind. whether it's the fall of the berlin wall or the invasion of kuwait liberation of kuwait or panama or those kinds of things. but i think the most special day memorable for me was the first day of the reagan gorbachev summit in 1987. and everyone was anticipating an end to the cold war and gorbachev had never been to the west. everybody in the world wanted to see how had he would get along with the guy who said it was an evil empire over there. and we had 7,000 correspondents credentialed to attend the up mit. so we moved the white house briefing room to the ballroom of the jw marriott hotel. and we also renovated half the commerce department or at least
the first floor for overflow crowd. and we got all 7,000 people packed in there. and i explained for several days why we were accommodating these people and also that i had invited my counterpart to brief with me. my rationale was if they were both there on the is taken, we wouldn't get in an argument across town which is what normally happens in these cases. i figured neither one of us wanted to upstage our principles or create a war. we would be very careful. and he and i talked about it. we were going to be careful. so we got to the podium and we walked up kind of on the stage like this and we were about halfway across and sam donaldson was sitting in the front row and he said 50 bucks, marlin takes him. [ laughter ] my first response, well, that's sweet. but my second one was, he just
destroyed every purpose i had for their entire show. but nevertheless it was a memorable five days. >> but why was that your best day? was it because of what it meant or was it because of your role in it. >> no, i think partially because of what it meant to the world to us. it was the beginning of the end, the unveiling of the reagan gorbachev relationship and all the arms control agreements that went with it. at the same time, it had this kind of very exotic and credible surrounding where access hollywood was sitting in the front row and entertainment tonight was tops on my phone list and things like that. so it was a great show great pavilion. last of all, it was fragile. and the mistakes could have been disastrous. i had kind of underestimated all that. so but anyway, you put it all
together and it was really a series of experiences you don't very often get. >> when you have an awesome day like that, does the president ever come say, good job? >> almost every briefing i gave. he had a squawkbox on the gave. he would call me immediately i got back to the office. sometimes he would send a note down while i'm briefing. >> wow. >> he almost said good job but sometimes he would say a criticism was, far lynn i might say that a little differently. >> anybody else? >> aren't you going to ask us what our worst day was. >> i'm getting there. i'm just letting you ace into it. >> go ahead. what was your worst day? >> well, i think clearly my well, the worst day was when ford lost the election to carter i think. but i think one of the most difficult days was when betty
ford went out to beth they das naval hospital and had a mammogram and discovered she had breast cancer. and she underwent eighta mastectomy. i'll never forget the look on ford's face. they had been married for 30 years. they were so close and so in love. and you know, he was in danger of losing her. and she wanted to put out the news while she was still in the operating room. sent a message out. and i think by being so open about this it resulted in a lot of women going and having mammograms. and happy rockefeller the vice president's wife discovered she had breast cancer. my mother went and had a mammogram, discovered she had breast cancer. this happened all over the country. but as i say ford and betty had
been so close. and he wanted to talk to the press after he found out you know, what was going on. and i said, you know, he was obviously shaken. and i said you know, why don't you take a couple minutes. no, no, i'm fine. and you know, you can if you ever look at this old film you'll see how rattled he was. she was an amazing person. and as you know, she also had a drinking and drug problem which she was very open about and that also led a lot of people to deal with that problem. >> why was it your worst day because you felt what? you were afraid that he was going to lose it or that you were going to lose it and it would reflect poorly on him? because it was so sad. >> yeah, because she was such a wonderful woman and he was so stricken by it and you know she was in such great risk. >> uh-huh. >> it had a happy ending, of
course. >> it sure did. anybody else? hmm, mike. >> yeah. well, no you know, it's funny because i -- [ laughter ] >> everyone assumes that the days of la fair monique would have been you know, the hard days but they were relatively easy days. the press corps was consumed with only one subject and i was saying nothing. [ laughter ] so it was just basically as i said at the time 100 different ways to be double parked in the no comment zone. you know? so it was just bizarre but it wasn't particularly challenging or hard or wasn't the worst day. it was just unbelievable. but my worst day and ron i appreciate it, it's the emotion that goes into it sometimes because we're supposed to get up there and be cool and collected and calm and as someone said in
the introduction we have to keep it together all the time. and my hardest day was i had worked as ron brown's director of communications when he was the chairman of the dnc. and the day his plane crashed on a trade mission in the balkans and went down and it was an awful thing because there were a lot of young people, many of the folks on the white house staff who had been part of the advance party who were also killed in that crash and i remember we had, i mean, we had the oval office, i don't know how the white house communications folks did this but we had piped into the oval office the guys who were on the search and rescue team who were up there to confirm the identity of the body and i remember it was awful. and the president called alma brown and it was very emotional. and then it happened right around the time of the briefing.
and so i said okay i've got to the go out and brief because everyone's going to want to know what's going on. i didn't stop to collect myself because here's a guy who i had cross swords with. i think the only time i got fired in my life ron brown fired me. and we had a wonderful relationship despite that. and i remember going out there, and i got about two-thirds of the way into this and i felt myself losing it. and you know i still lose it a little bit. i had to stop and say i need to -- i looked down at my staff and they could tell i was in turmoil so someone handed me a note which said get off now. so i went out and pretended that i was getting some information from the president. and then came back and was able to do the briefing. it's those moments that we -- you know, we handle a lot and prepare for a lot but every once
in awhile you get something that jerks you out of your place. and i think those were the hardest moments. maybe it wasn't the worst moment. maybe it was the hardest moment. >> what about you marlin what was your hardest day? >> well you know i don't really know that i can point to a hardest day. as i hear these stories you know, it strikes me we've all had stories like this. mrs. reagan had a double mastectomy. and i had to announce it on television and there wasn't much experience at talking about breasts on television. and i was scared to death. i want to tell you. [ laughter ] but i -- >> but you do know what they are? >> i had a passing aquaintance. >> i was a little concerned. >> so anyway, it was over and she called my and said would you come up to -- this is after she
got back from the hospital and she said would you come up to the residence. and i went up and she said, well, i just want to tell you, i thought you did a great job and are there any questions the press are asking about it. i said well, yes they want to know why you had a double mastectomy when they're now developing other less invasive kinds of operations and she said just tell them this, i want to live. she's stillm&yalive today. >> so there's a lot of days like that that are really moving that you know, i wouldn't say it was my worst day but you live with it. i remember one morning i came in and helen thomas says you're killing palestinian babies. you are. i said what? she says over night, they killed 30 palestinian babies. and you're responsible. and i said helen, what are you talking about? she says you're part of this administration. you're part of these policies.
you're guilty. and she stomped off. and two of my deputies heard all the screaming and came in. and i was crying. and they said why why, i said you know, i just don't think the i deserve this. how can this -- how can this be? but i got over it and you go on. is that the worst day, probably not. but i will remember it all my life. >> why did that make you cry. >> can we take about a half hour to tell helen thomas stories? >> we could. why did that make you cry? >> because it was just seemed so unfair and so unprofessional and not my responsibility and not -- and it was just painful. the idea that i was responsible for killing children. >> do you feel that i'm wondering if why you -- i would never have known this if you
hadn't said this. do you feel that it's your job not to let people know you have feelings. >> yeah, i don't tell those stories very often. it took 20 years to get this one out. >> what about you, robert? >> i think the hardest days are when you have really big things collide. and i think mike makes a good point actually the easiest days to get ready to brief are the hardest days to brief. and what i mean by that is, they give you -- you've got this notebooking with 20 or 25 things in it. but if you know you're only going to get one question asked six different ways you don't really have to pay attention to the other 19 tabs in the binder. >> we call it the kitchen sink day because everything in the kitchen sink was going to get asked that day. so you had to have ten times as.answers. >> look, i remember every day of the oil spill was brutal.
but you know, i remember during the oil spill was when rolling stone popped their story about stanley mcchrystal and we've got to call a four-star general back from afghanistan and you know, i remember walking over to the residence you know i had called the president and said i think you need to read this story. and i walked over and he met me downstairs and he read the first two paragraphs and he just -- we had a quick conversation. he said whoever's left it was kind of late at night, let's meet in the oval office in ten minutes. so have you these events that collide. i remember the shooting at ft. hood what an awful day that was. and pretty, you know december be the part into the evening we had spent probably two or so hours maybe five or six of us seven, i forget how many in the oval office with bob gates and
admiral mullen and bob mueller from the head of the fbi, the president talking through and i won't tell everything but talking through some of the stuff that they had already learned in the investigation. and i remember that was a thursday because i remember i'm walking out of the oval office and i see larry somers waiting and he's walking in and all of a sudden, i remember oh yeah tomorrow's employment report. and, of course, the white house economic team will get the employment report. and they don't it comes out:30 in the morning. it's the day for two years you're just waiting for the employment report. and larry was going into to tell the president what the report was. again, i'm so focused on fort hood and the investigation and the fbi and all that stuff. i see larry and i'm like, i kind of craned like go like this. and he just goes -- and i remember going oh, man.
and it was the first time the unemployment surpassed 10% since reagan. and so again there's those moments where you've got all this stuff and then something collides. i think the most powerful moment was late october in 2009 and we were in the midst of the afghanistan review. and an ied had just exploded on a basically truck carrying a bunch of our soldiers. and so there were 18 dead. and the president had lifted when he came into office the ban on press coverage of the transfer process at dover. and we knew at some point we would go to dover. and we figured this was a good time to go to dover. >> yeah. >> and we left the white house about 12:45 at night.
unaccompanied in a helicopter. it's about a 45-minute ride to dover. and i'll never forget the helicopter comes down and they had given us the tail number of the giant plane that had all the transfer cases in them. and i remember we put the helicopter down and i look out the window and the first tail number is this giant plane and it's that one. and i can remember coming off the helicopter and seeing in these neat little rows 18 transfer cases with the flag. and the process you know, is done it's a remarkable ceremony. and we were sort of there, we were there for about four hours. and you know, the president went out with the honor guard. they go, they get one of the transfer cases. they bring it off.
there's a whole ceremony. and i'll never forget we got on the helicopter and we flew back to the white house. we landed a little after 4:00 in the morning. and i remember the next morning, great friend of mine still is david axelrod said he'd what did you guys talk about on the way wa home? what did he say? and i said, nobody said a word on the ride home. we just got on the helicopter and you just you know again, we were empty midst of the afghanistan review. you're there watching the president go through this very dignified transfer and you're knowing that he's sitting there thinking, i'm going to make a decision where somebody is going to come back like that. and you meet the families. and it's just one of those things where you -- you know we had to describe it the next day and we did the pool reports. i never really had to go out and
brief on it, but i just remember thinking there are those moments in which you begin to feel a little bit of what they're going through. and in a real sort of in a way that you just feel like you can understand for a brief moment what weighs on their shoulders. >> yeah. >> so switching gears now, did you ever lie? [ laughter ] ? >> are you talking to me? >> yeah. did you lie? did any of you lie? >> i think i never really lied. i think i often. >> and i'm not lying now. i mean, one of the promises i made when i took the job was i will never lie and i will never cover-up and i didn't. i really kept that promise.
i think sometimes i worded things in to make them you know less. >> true? >> no, no. >> no, just less damaging let's say. but -- >> did you ever feel you walked up to the line? >> i thought we walked up to the line, sure. i think we all walked up to the line. but don't forget this. let me just back up half a step. ford succeeded richard nixon. and he had done, you know great damage to the presidency and so forth by the watergate. and how he handled watergate. and i think this made all the people in the ford administration determined to go in a completely different direction. plus the fact that i came out of the press. and i knew that there was always a suspicion that the, you know
that the press was, i mean the press secretary was not being completely honest with us. and so forth. and just to tell you, and i'm not making this up. just to show you how i was determined to be completely different than the nixon white house, nixon's press secretary was named ron ziegler. and one of the things i said when i was first appointed ford's press secretary was i'm a ron, but not a ziegler. but no, seriously, you know given the fact that ford had succeeded nixon and what how the nixon administration ended, you know, and the fact that i came out of the press and the fact that ford you know, in his whole political career had built a reputation for honesty and so forth. so you know we may have delayed putting out some stories as i say, i may have described him in
the best possible terms without lying. but i never did lie and that was a real promise to myself and to the press corps. >> michele. >> go ahead mike. >> you cannot lie in that job. i mean it's career ending. if you ever got caught knowingly misleading the press, the consequences of that would be the rupture in that relationship of fragile trust that exists anyhow and you wouldn't be useful to the president. now, i did i mean i got in trouble one time helen thomas asked me that question. and i said no, i've never lied. but i certainly learned how to tell the truth slowly.f#i [ applause ] [ laughter ] what i was thinking when i answered that question was, yeah, we were up in martha's vineyard after this really bizarre thing in which the president had to go on national
television talking about things that we were all familiar with, the very next day we were going off on a happy family vacation to martha's vineyard and i knew that we were going to be back to the white house because we were getting ready to launch a cruz missile strike against osama bin laden to try to catch him at a little pow-wow that he was having. i remember being at the little schoolhouse at martha's vineyard which i think respondent's probably been there and you know, the reporters want to go to the beach. so they kind of hang around saying when are we going to get the lid? when are you going to wrap things up. >> you know what the lid is? tell them what the lid is. >> no more news for the rest of the day so you're free and clear unless some emergency happens is basically our signal to them we're not going to be putting out any more news during the day. what do you say? was it a lie for me to say you know, no lid right now. i'm just going to check and ewhat's going on, see if there's anything happening. you know, yeah we're going to
war in about an hour and a half. would you like to stick around? [ laughter ] >> so there are techniques that you have to use and sometimes they border on a thing called spin which is that you are trying to take your best interpretation and offer it up. but i think if you knowingly mislead the american people and their representatives, the press corps, you're toast. i think that's a good thing probably. >> marlin, you had access to classified information in that you were part of the group of nine, correct in your administration? how did you handle that? i mean did you say don't tell me anything that i can't tell or how did you handle that? >> well, first of all, i was fortunate to become press secretary to both reagan and bush under circumstances where i knew them. i had worked with them before in lesser jobs. and in both cases i went to them and said, i want to be in all
meetings including all national security council meetings. and president bush who had been director of the cia said, that's certainly not the way we work. we have compartmentization and we have classified information and we determine who has the need to know and all that. i said well my view is i need to know everything you know. and he said well, let's see how it works. and the last thing i said to him was, if i divulge classified information, fire me. i'm out. i'm out that day. 5:00 that night, i'm gone. he said okay. so with that deal really at the beginning, i would go into all these meetings and auch the pentagon would call back and say why is fitzwater here? and fortunately, president bush about the second time this happened he started a meeting and everybody was lined up and
i was just a half a second late coming through the door. and he said, let's just all wait for marlin till he gets here. there was never a question again about why i was supposed to be there. and why not. but in my own mind, i had to worry about that every time. and what i would do first of all, is make a judgment on my own and try to decide am i really confident this is not classified. then i'd go to general scowcroft was our national security advisor and say, is this classified? am i getting in trouble here? and he would often say, here's a better way to say it or here's something a little more nuanced. and it saved me so many times in saying something i shouldn't have said to have a process and have it in mind. mike makes a really interesting point here about if a press secretary lies, he loses credibility. and why we have to be so careful about that.
and i have two quick examples. one was larry speaks who was asked if we were going to invade grenada, the president had gotten a tip. he went to the national security advisor and the national security advisor said that's preprosperous. absolutely not. larry didn't know. he wasn't involved. he went back to the press and said prepos ter russ. absolutely not. the next morning, of course, we did. we had over that night. and the press never treated him well again. it was similarly jody powell with president carter, he knew what was going on. he was very close to president carter. and he was part of the everything considerations on the attempt to rescue the hostages in iran. and one night, they were making the hostage rescue attempt. the press got a word of it. and went to him and said is this happening? jody just hadn't thought about it. at the hadn't spent time, what do i do when this question
happens. and he in his own mind said the same thing i probably would have said. i think i would have, that the most important thing here is the mission and protecting the lives of our troops. and i am not going to admit this no matter what. what jody did is he just kind of hadn't thought it through and he said no. it's not going on. it's not happening. well of course,ing it did. and jodie had trouble from there on. his deputy took over the briefings and it was a terrible thing. jody was a good press secretary, a really good one but it was just -- it just happened. so you kind of live in fear of that all the time. and i know we've all come close. >> robert you wanted to say something, then ron? >> and i've talked a little bit about this, but i remember the very beginning of the administration, and i know this is going to sound prepos ter russ but you know, one of the things they said, don't even
acknowledge, freth drone strikes. don't even acknowledge that there's a program that does this. and either you're new and you're like freaked out about saying something that's classified. okay, probably like the third day i was briefing, somebody asked me about a drone strike. i -- do i have any information on that and you know, not going to get into -- it's on the damn front page of "the new york times." right? because somebody has reported we've killed six people in a drone strike. yet the press secretary to the president of the united states is not capable of acknowledging a program in which that even exists. and i've said this now since i left. i didn't do anything i didn't say anything about it then. i wish i would have because you cannot have somebody standing up there saying something like that while they're reading "the new york times." it's sort of preposterous. i have an example sort of like
marlin's. during the afghanistan review which we had about i think probably 12 or 13 mostly three-hour situation room meetings to go exhaustively through the process. and after the first meeting ron, the chief of staff came in my office and said he said the pentagon, the pentagon doesn't want you in those meetings. they said they don't want a political guy in the meetings. yeah. ever been to the pentagon? [ laughter ] i didn't say a word. i just reached over to my desk and i picked up my i.d. because the one great thing about being press secretary is all the secret service guys know you you don't have to wear your id. i pick it up and said if that's the case, then take this and do tell me how it all works out. they said what do you mean? i said if those guys think i'm in there to give him political
advice about afghanistan then the idea that they don't know the president is -- that's the biggest understatement in the world. i said, if you think i'm going to go the president's going to go into a three-hour meeting in which we're going to repeat a dozen times and you think i'm going to come walking up to somebody who sat in that meeting and say hey i'm about to go brief the president's just been in these three-hour meetings. can you give me the five-minute rundown what they talked about so i can go answer 30 minutes of questions about afghanistan it's crazy. i said to them, if you think somebody is willing to sign up for that, be my guest. >> were you serious? were you prepared to quit? >> i absolutely would have if i could not have been in that meeting because like marlin, you have this -- you have way more information than you can ever say. and particularly at a time, i
mean look i'm sure there was then and there is now a safe in the office where you have to lock up classified documents, you have to record when the safe gets open record when the safe gets closed. there's a lot that you're -- that you get information on. and i think if you have are somebody who isn't in a lot of that and can't watch it and understand what you're supposed to steer around, then the whole job becomes sort of moot. because if i'm not in that, and again, it's not as if i'm -- i'm sure plenty of reporters will go back and look at those briefings and say you didn't say a lot about those 12 three-hour meetings but you at least get a good sense of what is discussed the interplay, the issues they're talking about. you could bring somebody out to do it a general or something would be just as complicated to do. but if you're not in there listening to that discussion in those probably 30 some hour
worth of meetings, i said one thing. and it was the second to last question and the last meeting after the decision had been made and the president said, how are we announcing this? you are doing a prime time speech at west point, sir. that's all he said in 12 meetings. my job was to take a lot of notes and try to as best as i could inform reporters about what was happening. if you can't do that, then brief being wouldn't matter, a press secretary wouldn't. you wouldn't have any capability. >> there two important things. it's not what you know is the press secretary that gets you in trouble. it's what people around the white house forget to tell you or don't tell you that get you
in trouble. marlon talks about having a process of verifying the information that you get in that you know what you need to know. that is critical to the job. the president has to protect that role of the press secretary to be there and know what's going on and to take it all in. he would literally stop and make me come to the meeting so that i would see what the conversation was about. the president is going to screw up the relationship that is important.
>> these two mikes are for that purpose. have at it. he made it clear that i could sit in on any mead inging and siszinger was not too happy about that. if you have to go to another member and say i expect to be asked a question about that, how should i answer that? they will spin you up and give you an answer that helps to achieve whatever they are trying to achieve and not to be truthful with the press. he kept that promise and he was more of a problem, but that's one of the most important things
you can do to pass on to the press. if you have been asked a question about so and so, they will give you an answer that helps them. with whatever the issue is. i think they need a question daily with the president. >> let's let the folks participate. >> you are right about the meetings. that's so important. sometimes they say the press secretary can always come in my office. that's great if you know what to ask the president. a bunch of times it is watching that process play out.
they make dig decisions and sometimes -- >> you were my favorite. >> i should have been. there was a rumor that one of your predecessors called on women based on the color of your jacket. >> i don't think so, no. >> we played favorites to give to certain news organizations that we thought would put a bigger dislay to get a story more exposure. >> exposure or liking you and your side? >> no just to get the story out
there. we will give you an exclusive if you put it on the front page. >> there was onlys one woman in the white house press core and i will tell you about it. i have a picture at home. i'm standing at the podium and you see the wide angle shot of the reporters. people sat on the floor and he was sitting down in front and i would make whatever announcements. we would say ron do you agree on that?
who gives a damn? we know who you are so we would love to know who you are. you said you don't lie and don't mislead, but the american people have felt like they have been lied to. they tried to analyze why experience theories are so widely believed in america such as the experience theory about 9/11. or the bush administration or all kinds of them. i wanted to point out that often times the people have been lied to about what we did in guatemala and what we did with the other stuff. i'm wondering if they have folks
that are in charge of something and the american people feel we endured. sometimes you are right. >> we were told versus that. >> there is an ethic here and if things are going on that are criminal or wrong or i'm confident that they would have alerted the american people or done something about it. my question is for ron.
what was the hardest thing about transitioning from being a journalist to the press secretary. >> just as a simple practical matter i would get picked up at 7:00 in the morning -- >> you have a white house car? i was thinking what the hell? when did that happen? >> yeah. >> he cut a better deal than we did. i leave and eat breakfast and start talking to the staff about what we think would be asked today. i would have a meeting with the
president at 10:00 and my briefing would be at 11:00. then in the afternoon, reporters would wander in and out of the office with their own questions, you know. there were meetings that i attended and so forth. i would usually get home at night about 8:00. >> i had a very young son and he would be asleep by the time i got home. asleep when i left and i would wake him up and play with him. that's the only time i get to see him. that's a long day. that was the way it worked. >> everybody wants to hear about the car. >> one of the biggest differences is televised meetings. >> my partner to the right is.
>> i had done briefings and he was the state department spokesman with the iran hostage crisis. it seemed weird that they turned on the cameras for the first two or three minutes and turned the lights off. two of the finest reporters at the white house. both radio reporters. they said we were at a disadvantage because we have to go out hour on the hour and report from the white house and we need sound. we need the briefing to be
available for electronic broadcast. i said we will experiment. i never asked permission. mark knoller came in and said did you know the briefing was televised last it wornged fine for three years. 95 96 97. we got into the escapades with monica lewinsky and i became a daytime soap opera. >> how did you get away with not answering any questions? >> very important cnn was the only all cable channel and they were not that interested in putting it on. occasionally they would carry
stuff live but it was the raw ingreedients and we were answering questions and giving our take on the answers. what happened was because of the monica stuff it became its own separate event and everyone suffered since then. unless i grand permission. they called what's called a filing break and they have to grant permission. >>s we waited patiently i don't want to keep him waiting. >> in one way that mike was a
perfect guy to do it. he was handsome and young and articulate and knew the government. most importantly at a time during that scandal or whatever it was -- >> there was. i'm sure of that. during all that president. i used to watch and i would say i don't know whether anybody back behind the scenes what they are doing or government is
still operating and impeachment is no fun for anybody, but we are moving ahead. i think the television presence paid off. woe haven't had the same situations, but i'm not willing to dismiss it entirely. i think but it makes it a lot different and different for the reporters. it was the end of a lot of print journalism and influence in washington. it was a complicated thing. >> this dpm and where are we.
>> this is enlightening and we would love to have all of you join us. my question is about something that you haven't talked about yet. mostly you have been talking about the transmit mote. what messages are you putting out. you served as you alluded to as internal advisers about what the impact of the press will be on decision making. i'm wondering if you can add insight into telling the policy shop. we are not doing that. that's a dumb idea and the press is not going to like it. what are the times where as an adviser you steered policy. >> what would you like to hear from? for the panel. >> i build off a little of what marlon said. the briefing does shape
government into giving an answer. i didn't have breakfast at the white house, but. >> i'm kidding. there were ten of us and they anyhow i had a bunch of stuff. you had a pretty good sense what your briefing and your day would be like. we are going out there and people said we don't have a policy problem, but a communications problem. me what to say and i will fix
it. you know you are going to say something. it good if you didn't asked that question. i agree. but you are not. i am getting asked that question. you would sit through a meeting and nobody would come to a resolution. you say guys, you guys can figure out what we are going to say or tune in around 1:30 and i will tell you about the policy. remarkable how quick the operations started working when they realized the one thing you can talk about, even if they are
classified and hard to talk about. we have a government that every day has to answer those questions. it makes the machinery of government work better because those answers are forced. even if it takes some times of the press secretary saying i remember doing a lot. they walked guys in and i said we are not saying that. that's crazy. you can't do that and you can't do that. you go and you would be 15 or 30 minutes lady. you say i know you doend want to answer this but that's not what we are going to say. it helps the machinery when theyton in and say i wonder how
mike is going to dole with that. it helps in a way that you said it only work fist we work together. >> he makes a good point about the jop of being press secretary. most of the job is to represent the president and the white house to the press. to represent the press to the white house and the president. having come out of the press i felt that particular low. >> sir? >> my name is adam armstrong. you guys have obvious had very exclusive access to the president. now that you guys are outside of the white house and reading newspaper cliffings. what do you think the media can be doing to get a better job to help serve the snnl public. >> next question.
i'm sorry. >> i think journalism has changed and since i dealt with journalists and i went back after i left the white house what happened is when you only had the huntley brinkley show and they all had a 6:00 or 6:30 p.m. deadline. if you covered the white house briefing and it was over by noon or something huh the whole rest of the afternoon to call up other sources and do research and go to the files and so forth. with the internet and cable television, you don't have that. there is a deadline every minute. i think that has really changed
the content and depth. the other thing when i was at the upi before i went to nbc, we had two full time reporters at the pentagon and two at the state and on the house and five on the senate. you stayed on your beat and learned all the issues. as you know, the newspapers are in a dive and everybody is a generalist these days. and as a result a lot of the reporters does not focus on the substance of the issues. look at the last election. what was the last election about? two weeks ago or something.
>> let me ask robert. this is the first social media administration. we have not forgotten you. i'm interested in how you feel this has changed your work. >> it's a lot. the whole thing is sped up. in a way that is -- i mean everybody works for them. basically everybody is at work. you don't -- your stories don't come out in the newspaper that you get at 6:00 in the morning or you might get at the back of the printing place at 5:00 in the morning. it's all instantly. it's sped up things remarkably. both in good and bad ways. i think i remember i joined
twitter and i joined it mostly -- you realize it's amazing communications tool, but i was watching a presidential press conference in -- i hated to do presidential press conferences in the briefing room mostly because i sort of felt like that is where the press secretary did battle and i thought don't bring the president in there and go into the east room or something. i'm sitting on this row of chairs. a deputy of mine is on twitter and like what's that. he has an ipad and during that, as the president is giving his answers, all these reporters are tweeting that's a bad answer. i don't think he is saying that. i'm saying i'm watching the
human bubble box. the voice box that is like -- i thought this is ingenious. i know where everybody is heading every minute of the day because they are tweeting it all out. it knocked out barriers in that you can communicate in a way that you couldn't before. i'm not there but they are. >> every white house tries desperately to control the messes that comes at it.
that's not going to change any time soon unless there is the advent of state run media. that is not going to happen any time soon. you have a duty to communicate directly with the people. 1980 when that administration they watched one of the three evening newscasts. you walk into the east room and do your event you know how many people are watching the nightly newscast? a little more than 20 million and more information that is more readily available at any moment in the nation's history.
>> i'm not clear on what it had to do with my question. the argument and people who covered these administrations argue that the obama administration made more of an effort to control reports and things like sprays. because the media is so segmented, you are speaking in a way that the president puts up a you tube video. we are going redo the pool and people pay to be in the pool.
not happening. good luck. what do you mean? we are doing this. i said let me give you something. get an e-mail program and send out your pool reports. i would say to the correspondent, i think it's madness that they cent out pool reports. buy an e-mail program and send them out and that whole system is solved. you control who gets pool reports and if you have to pay to be part of the pool and there is no discussion about somebody augmenting before it goes out. >> if you put your hands on it it will stay in it? >> it's remarkable in that white house briefing room mike and all these guys, you go in and the first person gives you that question. when the lead reporter said
thank you, you have reached the end of what most people consider a useful briefing. it's the only room in the white house that is not controlled. reporters controlled that room. they control it in large measure the rules of some of that briefing. i just don't think if you are distributing pool reports, i wouldn't depend on the white house. >> i think this thing about the white house and the reports is one of the most shocking things as a former white house correspondent and a press secretary, this is supposed to be five or six reporters who represent the press corps because they all can't get in. the five or six write out what they see and hear and give it to the others.
this is a shocking development. i'm not making this up. this had a huge impact on me. they are not unilateral lyly edited. i don't want you to leave with the impression -- >> i don't remember anybody having two words on say about it ever. i don't remember that. >> they asked about what the media could do. stop covering the white house as a political being.
the reporterings who were there mostly covered as a political story. is the president up or down? give us more substance. we are american people can handle more substance and the second thing was, recognize how hard it is for information to get out to the public. that means sometimes news reporters believe i wrote that story and it's not news anymore. it's the repetition and trying to find ways to bring important things back into focus that we try so hard to do. sometimes we use techniques that try to control that, but it's done with the hope that in this out there, something might breakthrough. # >> thank you so much for being
here. hold it accountable. i wonder if you worry that the revolving door between press secretaries is undermining that. people are throwing up softball questions and hoping to get a job afterwards. # george stephanopoulos and all coming from the news organizations after their press gig. i wonder if that undermines the credibility of the organization and what you can do about it. thanks. >> do you think they got unnecessary softball questions? >> i don't know. if the press core in general -- maybe that's not a question for you, but the press core? do you think it's more -- i guess soft on press secretaries? >> i would say watch the
briefing tomorrow. i guarantee you that you will not come away with the impression that somehow josh has been unnecessarily given a huge number of softball questions. >> when he comes back, the -- when he comes back and it's the week where the president might do something on immigration you don't have to listen long. i don't think anybody -- i think as mike said there days in which i would have loved to have picked the person who would give me that. >> the question is, let me rephrase that. for instance does jay carney's work in "time" magazine get undermined as soon as he was in an impartial role as soon as he takes a political partisan job as the white house press secretary? >> no because the reporting
stands on his. if he goes and does that, it's hard to go back and going from being a political person back to the media world is strenuous as stephanopoulos would say. my old boss tim russert would say if he were still here. that is more difficult. >> i wanted to know, you guys had unprecedented access to so many presidents and such a wide
range of presidents. if there was any one moment that was memorable whether it was something they said or did that showed their character and that you will remember for a long time if you can share it with us. # >> another was announcing betty ford's breast cancer. >> is there a moment that i think what he is asking, is there a moment that perhaps we did not see? we think we see so much and actually we see very little. that's a fair statement, isn't it? >> you told the story on 41 on 41. do you want to tell that story about when you saw the house at kennebunkport? i don't know how you feel about that? >> that's two quick stories. one was president bush called me
to the oval office and said i hear the press asking you questions about when with gorbichev. this was early in the d main station. they were getting their normal selves and saying things like you are supposed to be the foreign policy president and you lead six months go by and you haven't met with gorbichev. i want you to know this. i'm going to meet with gorbichev in december. four months away. he and i have agreed by telephone. he doesn't want anybody to know right now because he has hard liners in russia. he is getting too close to america and they don't like it. i have to do some work. can you keep that a secret?
he said you are only the third to know about this. if it leak you're fired. i listened to your briefings and i want you to know that you need to come up with language that doesn't deny this is going to happen. sooner or later they will find out it has been arranged. that was a great moment for me. the president is sensitive to my problems and the problems of information. the other story is when the perfect storm wiped everything out. the day after it happened i don't know how many day, but it was so sad. the press was with us but they
weren't with him in the house. they stayed out of the way. it was so shocking for him to walk through. he said what do i do with this? they said let me have it. i will try to save it. that was it. he started beating this rug. we all started beating this rug. in this horrible emotional loss which we see often in hurricanes tornados and stuff across america.
he left and went to the shack or somewhere there. i brought it and walked through. almost no story and walked away. that's tough for a press secretary or president to have to go through those emotional things. >> there was a moment that was really important in the presidency while i was there and absent. not long after i started at the white house and i mentioned earlier in the federal building they had been destroyed.
relevant because the republicans -- >> i remember how tickled he was that he had been able to use the presidency to do something important to help people in oklahoma city and to help himself. he understood what he had done with the job. you get the lights and the cameras off and you get to assess what it's all about. you get the rare insight. >> you are the final question
for the evening. pa. >> i have been cutoff about this point. >> i covered this town for some 50 years. i was at the briefing a year ago last month when the committee issued a very, very damning word on the obama administration's behavior with regard to the press. some of the top reporters in town were quoted. he promised to veto the authorization act of fiscal 13 that has that section permitting our government to arrest any of us anywhere in the united states. and he signed it. he went to the supreme court and they refused to hear it. you must have read that report. and then the defense authorization act of fiscal 13. he said he was going to veto it
and he didn't. >> i don't know what your friends were. i was out of government at that point. i didn't see that reporter or mention that. one of the things that i am reminded of a story that -- we were pretty early on in the administration, there were abuse photos that we had to make a decision on. the first decision was to release those photos of i think it was iraq and afghanistan. i sat in on the meeting. they talked about them making
the case on not releasing the photos and the reaction of people that were in the photos. he talked about knowing too much information and had been in the meeting and we walked out and the president told secretary gates, we will reverse the division and not release the photos. i don't know if it was that day or about a day later. literally the last question, i was half off the podium and we said we released the photos, but they were not released and somebody called out when are the photos going to be released. i remember turning around and remember i wasn't far enough off to pretend i didn't hear it. i remember thinking to myself, i have to be -- i have a
challenging answer because i know they are not going to be released. i know i have seen the meeting and the discussion and i know why. i was very -- i'm reminded of telling the truth slowly. i gave an answer that led everyone to understand we were about to make a very different decision. it just reminds me of the times in which we talked about in the beginning, you have information and what do you do when you have it? you are making the decisions about transparency. some of the decisions and the definitions are -- i don't think as easy as people might presume. just transparency at large or some of those decisions. >> thank you. i don't know that the gentlemen is satisfied with that answer, but i think --
>> reading the report. >> so many things we could have talked about with the figure here on "saturday night live." we will have to save that for the next session. robert gibbs -- >> here are the featured programs. from the explorer's club, apollo 16 astronaut, the youngest man to walk on the moon, charlie duke. janet is the president and ceo
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